What fiction is made out of is a bit of a mystery, but an old bromide has it that ideas should not be a major component. T.S. Eliot praised Henry James for not having any in his fiction, which seems to accord with James’s own understanding of his work. “Nothing is my last word about anything,” he once wrote to a critic who had upset him by construing a particular portrait in one of his tales as a general statement. Along similar lines, George Orwell praised Charles Dickens for being “a free intelligence” who, in Orwell’s estimation, “has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong.” Ideas, by virtue of their abstractness, are deprecated as too smooth and clean, deficient in the loam of contradictory specifics from which rich fiction grows, and the wish to demonstrate an idea is seen as dangerous because it might lead a writer to neaten her picture of the world, and thereby falsify it.
Some kinds of ideas probably should be kept out of literature. It’s understandable, for example, that Orwell dismissed political dogmas as “smelly little orthodoxies,” and that he celebrated Dickens for writing novels that were innocent of them. But does it make sense to exclude ideas drawn from science or math?
The challenge of science fiction is in its embrace of them. Stanisław Lem couldn’t have imagined the strangeness of an encounter with a nonhuman intelligence, in his novel Solaris, without recourse to ideas. He deployed so many, in fact, that the novel features a made-up intellectual history of human scholarship of alien intelligence, complete with controversies and paradigm shifts. Nor could Philip K. Dick have dispensed with them when he explored, in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, what humanity might feel like if it someday becomes almost indistinguishable from a simulation of itself. In the right hands, ideas expand the possibilities of fiction. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find a writer capable of assimilating them into the flesh and bone of story. Often one element is noticeably compromised: the ideas are watered down, or the story is sensational rather than deeply felt, no more than a soap opera or a boy’s adventure.
Ted Chiang has the powers of analysis and invention necessary for the alchemy. Chiang has been publishing ingenious tales of science fiction since 1990. His new collection, Exhalation, is only his second, arriving seventeen years after his first, Stories of Your Life and Others. He may have been slowed down by the daunting amount of intellectual labor that he puts into each story.
Consider the cunning structure of his 1991 tale “Division by Zero,” which appeared in his first collection. Renee, a mathematician, has been thrown into a suicidal depression, and her marriage to Carl, a biologist, is unraveling. The reader isn’t told at first what has discomfited Renee, though he may guess that it has something to do with her field of study. The story, after all, is broken up into sections whose headings resemble a mathematical series: 1, 1A, 1B, 2, 2A, 2B, etc. The sections headed with numerals only—1, 2, 3, etc.—set forth, in elegant précis, the history of attempts to prove that arithmetic will never contradict itself, as can seem to happen if one makes the “illegal” move of dividing by zero, an operation that, because it is undefined in arithmetic, leads to such nonsensical results as 1=2. The problem of arithmetic’s consistency goes to the heart of the nature of mathematics, Chiang explains in these sections, and it bears on the relation, if any, that the truths of mathematics have to events in the world.
The sections of the story headed 1A, 2A, 3A, etc., focus on Renee’s side of the story, and in them the reader learns that her despair has been set off by her discovery of a flaw in arithmetic’s consistency. The discovery renders meaningless, she feels, the discipline that she has given her life to, as she explains to Carl in a conversation that begins in section 6A and continues, in a bravura turn, in section 6B—the focus of the reader’s attention shifting, with the transition, to Carl, whose side of the story is told in the “B” sections.
Carl has long prided himself on his empathy. In fact, he rebuilt his life around the value of it after a suicide attempt years before, but it is now dawning on him that his capacity to understand his wife’s plight may not be accompanied by the power to reconnect with her. The more certain he becomes that he won’t reach her, in fact, the better he understands her despair, because his failure with her is undermining his faith in empathy, which is as integral to him as faith in the truth of mathematics is to her. Husband and wife are being divided by zero—by struggles with intellectual despair that are analogous but distinct.
By compressing the ideas, my summary may make the story seem harder to chew than a reader is likely to find it. Chiang’s language throughout is plain and clear. The flaw that Renee discovers in arithmetic isn’t fudged with verbal malarkey, the way the phrase “dilithium crystals” fudges the science of the spaceship’s engine in Star Trek. Renee merely explains to her husband the nature and significance of what she has found. Chiang doesn’t need to exaggerate the oddity of what mathematicians have actually discovered about the consistency of arithmetic, namely that it can’t be proven without resorting to techniques that lie outside the conventional frame of arithmetic, which strikes many observers as tantamount to saying that it will never be proven.
Chiang’s style as he describes the unknotting of Carl and Renee’s marriage, too, is balanced, neither cynical nor melodramatic. In fact, the symmetry of the story is so perfect, its structure so artful, and its spirit so enlightened that there’s something a little porcelain and eighteenth-century about it; so much equability and judiciousness may not suit every taste. But even readers who prefer a little romanticism and mess will likely admire the craftsmanship.
As accomplished as “Division by Zero” is, the gem of Chiang’s first collection is “Story of Your Life,” which became the basis for Arrival, a widely acclaimed 2016 movie directed by Denis Villeneuve. The tale is impossible to describe without giving away its ending, which is contained in its beginning—a nesting that is, more or less, its point. The experimental timeline is informed by what’s known as variational physics: a way of formulating the laws of physics that highlights a variable that is being maximized or minimized. A ray of light bends as it passes between air and water at such an angle that it reaches its destination more quickly than it could by any other path. In a variational approach to the problem, the origin and destination of a ray of light are given, and the time the light travels is minimized. “The ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in” is how the narrator of Chiang’s story explains the principle to herself.
She is a linguist who has been asked by the government to communicate with visiting aliens. She learns that the aliens find variational physics intuitive and the kind of physics conventional on Earth, which predicts the effects that follow certain causes, a slog. Moreover, in the aliens’ spoken language, word order is unimportant, and in their script, symbols can’t be written unless the writer knows in advance everything he is going to say. It’s as though the aliens perceive time synoptically rather than as a sequence of moments. The narrator of the story is addressing it to her daughter, who, the reader pieces together, hasn’t yet been conceived but also, somehow, simultaneously, has already died.
In the course of the events described in the story, the linguist’s way of perceiving has converged with that of the aliens she has been trying to understand. The story isn’t just a puzzle made out of linguistics and physics, though it is that. It’s a story of loss—a mother is mourning her daughter—and an investigation of the altered consciousness that those of us who haven’t had the good fortune to meet aliens experience only in memory, and especially in the uncanny deepening of memory that comes with age.
I’m not sure Chiang has yet written anything else quite as moving. Most of the stories in his first collection do not involve such highwire experiments with literary form; the delicate rationality of his world-building, rather, is the chief pleasure. In “Tower of Babylon,” for example, miners are brought to the roof of a biblical world in order to dig into the literal vault of heaven, which is a hard white granite, only to discover, once they pierce it, that the ends of their universe are joined up in the manner of the design on a cylinder seal, where the final part is adjacent to the initial part. In “Seventy-Two Letters,” the technology driving England’s Industrial Revolution is imagined to be not the steam engine but the golem, and engineers compete to find names that can animate manikins of increasing sophistication.
The stories in Exhalation for the most part continue in this vein of patient, methodical elaboration. The first story, however, also plays with literary form—by borrowing it. In “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a textile merchant visits a shop in medieval Baghdad, where he learns that the shopkeeper, who dabbles in alchemy, has figured out how to expand tiny wormholes in spacetime “the way a glassblower turns a dollop of molten glass into a long-necked pipe.” The alchemist’s finished portals are large enough to walk through, and some span twenty years. The alchemist cautions that a visit to the past changes nothing. “Using the Gate is like taking a secret passageway in a palace,” he says. “The room remains the same, no matter which door you use to enter.”
In the nested storytelling style of The Thousand and One Nights, the merchant relates the alchemist’s recounting of three voyages through the gate, which turn out to be interrelated—again like the tales in The Thousand and One Nights—and the merchant concludes by describing an adventure of his own. Since time travel, in this story’s dispensation, does not change history, each tale teaches a moral of acceptance of fate, which, as Chiang observes in an endnote, is “one of the basic articles of faith in Islam.”
An agnostic reader may bridle a little at the implicit praise of resignation. Science fiction plots involving time travel usually leave behind loose threads, but there are none in this story, and the perfection of the weave may add to a reader’s impression that there is something inexorable about Chiang’s writing. Is the control a mere demonstration of skill, or does it have a deeper significance? The voice in the stories is never personal, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where, in any of them, Chiang himself seems to be writing from. It’s possible that he regards the world as a somewhat remorseless pattern, and his personal self as no more than a component of it.
The objects of his attention are so various that it can even be difficult to isolate themes, but a fascination with free will does seem to be one. The problem of free will has long troubled philosophers, in light of the omnipotence of God and the deterministic nature of physics; and over and over, Chiang’s characters find themselves trying to reconcile choice and surrender. The linguist in “Story of Your Life” welcomes a child she knows she will lose. The travelers through the alchemist’s time gate do good and evil without changing how happy any particular person has been and always will be at any particular point in history. A very short story in the new collection, “What’s Expected of Us,” imagines a warning from the future advising continued belief in free will despite a new device that demonstrates, in a trivial but indisputable way, that the belief is illusory.
Another of Chiang’s themes seems to be that emotional responses to new technology are best understood as stages in a society’s process of acceptance. In “Liking What You See,” a short story in the first collection, published years before social media like Twitter and Facebook were invented, Chiang worked through the cycle that has since become routine when a technology is introduced: experimentation, overpromising, left-wing scolding, right-wing backlash, astroturfing, leaks, indignation, callouts, exhaustion, and inurement. (Chiang’s invented example is a reversible, painless nonsurgical way of blocking the brain’s ability to evaluate other people’s looks.) Similarly, in a story in the new collection, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” Chiang imagines that if video logs of daily life one day become searchable, some people will at first romanticize the organic memory they used to rely on, in order to avoid recognizing how self-serving the imprecision of that memory had sometimes been. But in the end, Chiang supposes, even the resisters will come around. “I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory,” his narrator eventually realizes. “The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.”
Alas, would that it were so! The story was first published six years ago, and in this case, the present already seems to have veered sharply away from Chiang’s prediction. Confronted with video evidence of lies, it is also possible to respond with a new shamelessness, as President Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, demonstrated in April, when she was shown a 2017 video of herself falsely claiming that “countless” FBI agents had lost confidence in former FBI director James Comey—a lie that she admitted to federal investigators in 2018 was “not founded on anything,” as the investigators put it—and proceeded to repeat her original claim, emending “countless” to “a number.” Zero and one, of course, are numbers.
In one of the strongest new stories, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” Chiang imagines the cascade of emotions that are likely to be provoked if the hybrid computer-human environment that we now live in incubates an artificial intelligence as flexible and purposive as our own. Such an intelligence would be able to learn and grow, Chiang reasons, and any creature capable of learning and growing has to be taught and cared for. To elicit that care, the intelligences would therefore have to be charming, as pets and children can be—trusting; endearingly clumsy, at least at first; goofy; capable of sharing their caretakers’ moods; and imitative in a way that is flattering and imparts a sense of responsibility.
Chiang imagines that the intelligences, which he calls “digients,” would be created by a company that sells them to hobbyists. In his tale, a digient named Jax is adopted by Ana, a former zookeeper who works for the manufacturer. Jax looks like “a neo-Victorian robot made of polished copper” in the online multi-user environment where he spends most of his time, and at first he speaks in a slightly mispronounced pidgin. “Jax smirt,” he tells Ana, soon after he correctly identifies a blue shape as a “tringle” and a red one as a “squir.” Cute at the outset, Ana and Jax’s odyssey turns scary when she and her fellow caretakers learn of sadists who download copies of digients and torture them, and then turns creepy, toward the end, when the caretakers are forced to consider allowing their wards to be sexualized.
The reasoning behind the plot twist is, as always with Chiang, cogent—shading into remorseless. He imagines that it would take decades to raise a digient, because even though its cognitive process can be sped up, it isn’t possible to speed up a human caretaker’s mind. By the time Jax and his peers become teenagers, they have outlived the company that created them and are stranded on an obsolete software platform, in need of coding to port them to a new one. The cost is more than the hobbyists can afford, but a sexual entertainment company steps forward, eager to pay for a license to sell copies of the digients into romantic relationships with customers. Once the digients’ reward systems are reprogrammed, a representative of the company assures an audience of the digients’ skeptical “parents,” the digients will perceive the new relationships as consensual. And after all, the representative points out, humans themselves don’t really get any more choice in the matter: “We become sexual beings whether we want to or not.” Capitalism, abetted by the limits of human altruism, forces the dislocations of puberty onto humanity’s digital children.
The final tale in Exhalation combines all the hallmarks of Chiang’s work: an interest in the contingency of free will, an exploration of emotional responses to technology, and a rendering in plain prose of a bold and complex speculation. In “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”—the title comes from a line of Kierkegaard’s—Chiang imagines a device, called a “prism,” that establishes a channel of communication with a divergent branch of reality. At first the divergence is infinitesimal, but after a month, the weather in the two connected worlds is no longer correlated. No two prisms connect the same branches of reality, and each channel has a limited lifetime bandwidth, which runs out quicker if crude digital pictures and sound are transmitted rather than text; once it’s exhausted, no further communication between those two worlds is possible.
Confusing feelings are sparked by learning about versions of oneself in other branches of reality. It’s nearly impossible to resist envying another self’s greater financial or romantic success, and the bereaved long for a prism that connects to a reality where a deceased loved one survives. The greatest challenge, however, is subtle: aware that their other selves have made different choices, many people have started to discount the moral weight of their own actions. “I want to know whether my decisions matter!” a character pleads with her therapist. Maybe every virtuous act, the therapist suggests, increases the number of futures in which one becomes the person one would like to be.
Her answer presupposes a concept of personal character more abstract than many people would be able to find consoling—as statistical as it is existential. Some readers may find it quixotic for Chiang to work through the ethical implications of alternate universes so methodically. But fiction does more or less what the prisms in his story do: provide a finite glimpse, through an imperfect medium, of one way things might have turned out. A story wouldn’t engage us if we didn’t feel that it had a moral significance even though it wasn’t real. And if a story helps us through a deliberation, we owe something to it even though its events didn’t take place in our universe. Considered in this light, multiple selves and speculative responsibilities turn out not to be all that abstruse; what Chiang has done is take the idea of fiction seriously.